The Greatest is Love

It’s better to have a friend than to be alone because friends can help each other out. If one falls down, the other can help her get back up again. I feel sad if there are people who fall down with nobody to help them get back up.
~My version of Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Curb where I fell in Bethlehem

I fell down in Bethlehem. It seems like such a small thing, falling down, in the grand scheme of things, but from my perspective on the pavement in Palestine, it was pretty huge. I was in a vulnerable position, far away from home. I fell over my own two feet. My friends and family were worried about my safety in the West Bank because, frankly, the news we receive in the U.S. does not paint Palestinians in the best light. The thing is, I didn’t even spend enough time on the pavement to contemplate my condition before a Palestinian taxi driver pulled me up to my feet. He persisted in asking me if he could take me to a hospital and when I finally convinced him that I was not interested in going to a hospital, he and a friend pulled a taxi van right up to me, helped me into it, and drove me the short distance to my friends’ house, then helped me out and refused to take any shekels for their time. I must say I was overwhelmed by the way these strangers helped me. Once I made it inside the house, I had a loving family who took good care of me and though we had been friends, now we are family.

A couple of weeks before the fall in Bethlehem, I fell in Jerusalem. I fell right into the doorway of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the very spot where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and raised. I cut my knee open and spilled my blood on the cold, hard floor of Golgotha. Gratefully, on that occasion I had folks with me, I had only met two of them that morning. My three companions tended to me, stopping the bleeding and making sure I remained alert and drank plenty of water. When I saw the blood, I got lightheaded and couldn’t gather my wits about me. All I wanted to do was sleep. I ended up going to a hospital that day. I rode in an Israeli ambulance, which seems totally ridiculous now, with a little cut on my knee. But I couldn’t pull my brain together and it caused people to wonder about me (haha) and we all decided not to take any chances.  

We all fall down. Sometimes we fall over our own two feet and sometimes circumstances knock us down. Life can be brutal and we can suddenly find ourselves languishing in the cold, hard unforgiving depths of pain and misery. When we get down there, it can be hard to get back up. We may want to just stay there and go to sleep. We have to depend on the people around us to keep us alert and help us get back up. Likewise, when we see others fall down, we can be the friends who help pick them back up again.

People from all over the world make pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre church. Some expressed concern that day and even handed us items like wet wipes. But most hurried right past, paying no attention to the person on the floor, emotions from once-in-a-lifetime visit to the holy place running high, not wanting to miss the chance to kiss the holy pillars and stones. My friends told me it made them think about the story of the Good Samaritan, when some good, religious people, passed right by the man who needed help. I have totally been that person. I am sure we all have at some point.  

Sometimes we put pillars and stones ahead of people. Our own needs and rights, whether religious or not, can be so pressing all-encompassing that we focus on the urgent and forget the important, even when we find ourselves at the literal foot of the cross.  We so desperately need mercy, love and grace that, for Christians, is represented by the cross, but the cross also symbolizes pain and suffering. I think the point of the Good Samaritan story is that we get so caught up in our own business that we don’t even see others. We see only our needs and wants, without looking around at the hurting people lying on the side of the road. And while we all need mercy, love and grace, we need to be willing to extend it to others as well. This may come as a surprise to some Christians, but we are not called to come to Jesus. We’re called to be like Jesus. Coming to Jesus is easy. Living his teachings is not. It requires self-sacrifice. It demands that we look around and give hurting people the grace we so freely accept for ourselves. Ironically, giving love, mercy and grace to others can be where our own healing begins. It makes it possible to look back at that massive, gaping, bleeding wound in our lives and see that it was only a small cut that no longer has any power over us.

This is how we create community. This, I believe, is the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t require his followers to be a group of people who follow closely to a set of rules and regulations and all believe the same way about it. He talked about relationships between people who were different. Don’t just love your brothers and sisters, but love strangers as well. My three Holy Sepulchre companions, the family who cared for me, the Bethlehem taxi drivers, the EMTs who assisted me in the ambulance, my physical therapist, have all become a part of my community. I love them and have a special connection to them, even if I will never see them again. They have all impacted my life. They represent at least three religions, and maybe no religion at all. But religion is of no consequence to the kingdom of God. Jesus was Jewish. If you want to follow the way of Jesus, he never required you to join any religion. He just required you to live like he did. Many Christians find it too difficult. And many others do it better. It’s dangerous, it’s frightening, and it could cost you your life. If you’ve ever loved someone, you already know that love requires sacrifice. Love requires acceptance, even if you don’t agree. It requires openness and honesty. When you love someone, you can’t possibly make them your enemy and you would never want to do anything to hurt them. The way of Jesus is love. And when we love like he did, we bring the kingdom of God to earth.

May it be so.

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Note to Self: The Power of Encouragement

“Everyone has inside them a piece of good news. The good news is you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is.” – Anne Frank

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

I recently had an excruciating fall semester. I’ve been working on my master’s degree one or two classes at a time while working full-time. “I am not a good student.” Has been the story of my entire life. It’s something I accepted early on and I allowed that story to be solidified by how I reacted to the words of others. One particular case happened when I was first in college. I am a slow reader and it is difficult for me to retain what I have read. I was in a history class that required extensive reading from a large book with very small print. I was falling behind so I went to my instructor for help. I was informed by that instructor that because of my mediocre grades in high school, my ACTs and my GPA at the time, it would not be possible for me to pass the class and there wasn’t anything that could help me. And of course, he was right. I showed no outward emotion during or after this encounter, I just internalized the discouragement and the perpetual story that I lacked intelligence. I left college after two years.

Many years have passed since that time, I have had been able to rise above that story, due to the encouragement of loved ones. My husband has been my biggest cheerleader and I probably would have never obtained my bachelor’s degree had it not been for his encouragement along with the support of family, friends and faculty members.

Last fall I added teaching English as a Second Language in the evenings to my already busy schedule for the valuable experience it would provide. I looked in the mirror and gave myself a lecture, reminding myself that all the things I’m doing are things I love and that I should just do the best I can and not get stressed out. If I didn’t get an A in my class, it would be okay. I was on track to graduate in May 2018 and I thought I could handle it.

When my dad broke his hip, I considered dropping my class, but with support from my loved ones, I carried on. Toward the end of the semester, I became anxiety ridden. Some old skeletons came out of the closet to haunt me. Perfectionism, not that everything has to be perfect, but that nothing I do is ever good enough, showed up at the most inconvenient time. I became hard and demanding on myself. I was devastated because my paper was too short and I didn’t have enough mental capacity left to finished it.

I went to my counselor expecting sympathy. I didn’t get any. What I did get, however, was encouragement.  I was able to go back home and complete my paper to an acceptable degree. I felt so much better. I highly recommend a good, encouraging counselor. 

In September, someone posted a challenge on Facebook. Write a letter to yourself on October 1 that you would not open until January 1. I wrote that letter of encouragement by hand with a pen on beautiful stationery, as if I was writing to someone else.

Here is an excerpt from that letter:

“… I wish I was reading a letter from you, Julie-a-few-months-from-now. I wish I could hear you tell me that I survived the next three grueling months. I’m overwhelmed by the work that is ahead of me.

“But we’ve been here before, haven’t we? And we survived those times and I know when you read this, you will be overcome with gratitude. This has been a hard year…But when you read this, you… will have completed an entire semester of teaching ESL. Can you believe you are a real teacher now? So much hard work has gone into this and I am truly proud of you.

“I just want to remind you of all the hard things that you have already done so that you know that you are almost there.

“I feel the pain now, but I know when you read this, you will feel the joy of accomplishment. You are a doer, not just a talker and I am so proud of that.

“Keep your chin up – your Heavenly Father is smiling.

“With much love, Julie”

When I read this letter to myself, I was taken back. I was honestly shocked that it was so encouraging. I cried. I can’t even read it now without crying. I don’t know why it is so hard to be kind to myself and to accept kindness from myself. Why am I harsh with myself when I would never be that way with others?

Encouragement is a powerful force. Give it to yourself and allow yourself to accept it.

Last semester was so difficult that I decided not to take a class this semester. I was willing to  postpone my graduation indefinitely, maybe forever, I didn’t really care, I just wanted my life back. But something interesting happened. A faculty member encouraged me. She heard me talking about a project I’m working on with much passion. She suggested I incorporate it into my degree.

I’m back in the game this semester, but I’m going to make some changes. I’m going to be honest with myself and others, asking for help when I need it. I’m going to look at myself in the mirror and encourage rather than lecture, and I’m going to write myself more encouraging notes.

How can you encourage yourself?

I Don’t Want to Be Nice Anymore

Since June I have started no less than 10 blog posts. They sit there staring at me from my Google docs “Weekly Blog” folder. Some have only one line. One entry has only a date at the top of the page. I’m considering changing the title to “Bi-monthly Blog” to see if that helps any.

There has been plenty of subject matter. So much, in fact, that I’m having trouble sorting it out and making sense out of it. I’m humbled and thrilled with my new ESL teaching job. My students are amazing humans and I’m blessed to be their teacher. I saw a couple of them last night in Walmart and my heart leapt with joy to see them. Hopefully, I’ll write an entire blog about teaching ESL soon.

On the other hand, I’m still enduring a deep struggle with our country’s new administration and new policies that I believe will hurt many people and the incessant bullying on Twitter which I believe endangers our country and its citizens and serves to delegitimize the US internationally.

The Middle East is always on my mind as well as the natural disasters, one right after another.

Finally, two weeks ago, my dad broke his hip. Lord have mercy, my head and my heart hurt.

And somewhere inside me there’s still a blog post about my weekend at the hermitage.

I want to write about each one of these things, but when I sit down, they get all jumbled up together and I can’t find any words at all.

Today I plan to focus on something that has been slow cooking in my heart for a while now and has been reignited by some recent words from the president. I have been watching my friends weigh in on this subject as well and I hope they will offer me plenty of grace as I may have a different view that I feel I need to express here in my blog, rather than on Facebook. Let’s see if I can complete this thought.

I’ve always been known as someone nice. I made it a point to be as nice to people as I could through my younger years. I thought it was the right thing to do. I was flattered when a long-time friend told me that he always thought I was one of the nicest people he’d ever known. But is it always good to be nice? Sometimes being nice in order to get along can mean keeping silent in the face of oppression. And if you do dare to speak up, will people still think you are nice?

When I was in the eighth grade, I was bullied on my schoolbus. I was made to sit on the floor, I was kicked, and I had marijuana smoke blown into my face on a daily basis. The other kids on the bus, who were not bullying me, either laughed about it or remained silent. Not one person ever came to my defense. As a result of this experience, I am especially sensitive, not only to bullying, but also to injustice and oppression everywhere.  

Regarding athletes who sit or kneel for the National Anthem, I support them, and here’s why. First, it is vital to keep free speech alive in this country, especially here and now. We have to work diligently not to let that be bullied away. Second, these athletes have a platform that they are using to send a message. They are not angry, they are not violent, they are quietly and honestly sending a message. We need to listen. Then we are certainly free to decide if we support the message or not. Whether or not they are spoiled and rich is not the issue. I don’t believe they are choosing to disrespect our country, the flag and our veterans, but they are bringing to light issues that desperately need to be addressed. The question is not whether they are being disrespectful, but what are they saying? People are being bullied in this country. They are not just having pot smoke blown in their faces, they are actually losing their lives. There is something terribly wrong here that needs to be addressed.

Not all Christians, but some of the public Christian responses I have seen to this issue frighten me. I grew up in the Christian community. It’s who I am, my worldview is centered around it. In some ways, because of this, I tend to be highly critical of it. I speak up and I question it. And I believe it’s the right thing for me to do, but it can be kind of risky.  People might not like me anymore. They’ll stop talking to me. They’ll unfollow and unfriend. People who have known me all my life will assume things about me. They’ll condemn me to hell. But I can’t sit silently by while people are being hurt. So I have decided to turn in my “nice” card.  

Children are taught in school (I hope) to speak up when they witness bullying amongst their classmates, I believe I should speak up when I think something is not right in the Christian community. I see things coming from some Christians who are in the public eye that bother me. I see nationalism and patriotism  replacing the Gospel of Jesus. I see angry name-calling and blanket support of harmful policies. I see a blind eye being turned to racism, elitism and oppression. There’s nothing wrong with being patriotic and loving your country. But when that is placed above others’ human rights and dignity, it’s nothing less than idolatry. We have left the Gospel of Jesus Christ behind and entered into something else entirely.

Non-violent resistance should not be crushed. This is how change happens, how we learn and grow as a community. We need to truly listen to the message of these athletes. We all need to do a lot  more listening and a lot less talking. And while I don’t want to be “nice” anymore, I do want to be kind and gentle. Because nice seems like an act to me, a sweeping the dirt under the rug kind of clean. It’s a fake clean, a cowardly lie. Kind and gentle are authentic like grandchildren who run to greet you at the door with gleeful hugs and kisses. Kind and gentle are aspects of true, authentic love.

May God help us all leave the fake nice behind and put on authentic love for our fellow humans.

Dear Women Friends

It’s been a while, but I’m packing to move and only have a few minutes. This subject has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks so I decided it’s something I need to write about.

A few years ago I read a book called How to Spot A Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved by M.A. Sandra L. Brown.

It may seem weird that I, a happily married woman, would need to read that, but the truth is predators don’t care if you are married or not. The reason I read the book was that I was in a very low time in my life and an old friend came along. He developed an unhealthy relationship with me that was very hurtful in the end. At first it was euphoric because I thought he truly cared, but as time went on it became obvious that he was in it for the ego boost and I was not the only target. It was never a physical relationship, completely emotional and entirely inappropriate and damaging. 

That’s all I’m going to say about that situation, but since that time I have known other women who have experienced similar situations so I want to recommend this book to all women, whether or not you are married or in a relationship or not. Keep your eyes open and your heart guarded. With much love ~

Here is a helpful checklist from the book:

Red Alert Behavioral Checklist

The emotional predator:

  • has a natural instinct for sensing vulnerable or “sensitive” women
  • senses women with low self esteem
  • senses women who want or require relationships in order to feel needed or fulfilled
  • senses women who are bored, lonely, or needy
  • senses women who are on the rebound from having been recently dumped, divorced, emotionally ignored, or wounded
  • senses women’s body and eye language
  • listens closely to what a woman says in order to pick up clues he can use in later conversations
  • senses unfulfilled physical intimacy needs and sexual needs
  • creates a sense of fun and mystique to draw you in
  • is smooth and seems to have all the right lines and insights into you
  • comes on fast and strong and sweeps you off your feet
  • is overly interested in every detail of your life
  • wants to move in together or get married quickly
  • implies that he “knows” you well before he has spent enough time to really get to know you 
  • pushes you to quickly disclose a lot about yourself to him
  • tries to fulfill your physical, financial, or emotional needs
  • seeks to fill roles in your life, such as advisor, father figure, spiritual leader, mentor
  • is overly helpful, comforting and understanding
  • has the exact same interests, values, hobbies, etc that you do
  • is a chameleon who can be all things to all people

Good Friday

I just returned from our church’s Good Friday service where we acknowledged the death of Jesus on the cross, emptied the altar, snuffed out the Christ candle and left the building in silence. Every year we have this opportunity to look closely at death and suffering and try to make some kind of sense of it.

I’ve always been a rule follower. I was taught that if I would listen and obey, life would go smoothly. For the most part, as a child, this philosophy worked. The people who were making the rules for me, my parents and most teachers, loved me and had my best interest at heart. But when parents and teachers are not around and you are at the mercy of your peers, clearly drawn lines begin to blur. My eighth grade year found me in a new city and a new school. Junior high school is difficult enough and I had moved from a town of 200 residents to the suburbs of a fairly large city. To say the first few weeks on the school bus were bumpy is a gross understatement. I was the last person on and finding a seat was impossible. The only words I ever heard the bus driver say were “sit down!” So, in total compliance, I sat, on the floor. The behavior on that school bus was something like a mixture of Survivor and and Lord of the Flies. And I, living by the only philosophy I knew, absorbed it all. It was a long time before I learned how societal norms and institutional rules and regulations can be manipulated and hurt people for someone else’s gain and that sometimes breaking the rules is the right thing to do.

On Good Friday, we try to understand the system that was in place and we grapple for the nuggets of truth and discernment. And every single time the reality of that day takes me back a little. The ominous fact that Jesus was crucified because he didn’t toe the line and follow the prescribed rules of the system settles in upon me like a cold, dark cloud. He was beaten and killed because he clung to the truth that human dignity and justice are more important than following any man made rules and regulations put in place to control the masses. Jesus saw people differently. We see it time and time again in the downcast eyes of the women with whom he gently spoke. We see it in the fishermen and tax collectors. His message is always and forever that every outcast, every sad and lonely soul and every “filthy sinner” is worthy of God’s everlasting love. The world of Jesus was full of violence but he did not participate. I think it’s sometimes hard for us to understand how submersive his message was (although it may become easier in the near future). The idea of love and peace having power over retribution, retaliation and violence is a pretty wild idea, revolutionary.

Of course many laws and rules are put in place for the good of all. But laws and rules are also sometimes enacted as a means of oppression and injustice. It is up to us, as citizens of the world, to continue to question rules and laws that oppress and hurt people. We shouldn’t just assume that we should follow along. Let Jesus teach us. Let history teach us. Don’t let the suffering of people in the past go in vain. Remember the Holocaust. Remember slavery. Remember the crucifixion.

If only Rosa Parks would have followed the rules, or Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela…  Sometimes not following the rules is the right thing to do. Sometimes refusing to comply brings to light and affects change of practices that are steeped in injustice. People have paid a high price, even the ultimate cost of their lives for shining a light on oppression. Jesus did it. And he called his followers to pick up their own crosses and shine their own lights. Will we be brave enough?

Using My Voice

I didn’t write anything last week because I’m neck-deep in writing two papers about refugees for my master’s degree. I took two classes this semester against my better judgment (along with working a full-time job) but when this semester ends next month, I’ll only have two classes left to finish (plus two degree papers and the required comprehensive exams). I can almost taste freedom. I began this journey in 2013 when I entered the TESOL graduate certificate program, but it was only last summer that I made the decision to go for the Master’s in Applied Second Language Acquisition. A masters has been on my bucket list for many years but I didn’t really think I’d ever actually do it. But here I am. Doing it. It’s pretty painful right now, but that will just make it sweeter in the end.

I had an amazing opportunity yesterday that I want to share. Earlier in the week a friend messaged me and asked if I’d be interested in speaking to her social work class. I’m quite an introvert, actually and speaking in front of a group is not usually comfortable for me, even though I do have some experience. When my friend mentioned the subject matter she wanted me to share, I immediately said yes. She wanted me to share with her students about my experiences with Muslims. I am passionate about this subject matter. Because I work at a University with people from all over the world, sometimes I forget that I was 50 years old before I met my first Muslim friend. And sometimes I forget that some other people from the Midwest U.S.A. haven’t met or interacted with people who happen to be Muslim.

So I took the day off work and went to visit with a group of students about my friendships and experiences and how much my Muslim friends have taught me and reshaped my thinking about people who are different from me. I was actually amazed myself to see the change in my attitude over the past 4 or 5 years. I am so grateful and a much richer person because of the friendships I have with people who didn’t grow up the same way I did. I have met people from other religions beside Islam as well that I didn’t know about before and I have dear friends who hold to no religious beliefs at all. These people have all made me a better person and I’d dare say even a better Christian because of how their points of view and their very presence in this world and in my world has caused me to reexamine all that I believe and what I consider to be truth.

It breaks my heart when I see hateful articles about Muslims. I feel pain when people make sweeping statements about people they have never met. I try to keep my time on Facebook to a minimum because I grieve every time I see the hateful rhetoric. I know there are evil, hateful people in the world. But they exist in every society. There are hateful, evil people who label themselves Christian. And I’m sure there are people in the world who make sweeping statements about Christians because of it. I can’t control what my friends say or think or believe about Muslims. All I can do is use my voice to tell a different story. And I just hope there are people who are willing to listen.

A Gentle Piece of My Mind

I had filtered my Facebook news feed with an outside app. I had unfollowed friends who posted things that I consider hateful. I tried to buffer myself from the brunt of the election season and when I did encounter it I tried to remain silent and civil. I tried to hide my horror at what was going on with the election. Be quiet. Keep the peace. Be quiet. Keep the peace?

If there is anything I have learned in the past several years about peace, it is certainly that being quiet only provides an illusion of peace and the loud dominant voices who continue to march on, often crush those silent “peacemakers.” So here are my words, my quiet and meek words, for what they are worth. This is my opinion. I’m not a political expert but I do have some strong opinions.

I’m tired. I’m tired of a sacred and holy faith being used as a club to bully the masses. I’m tired of reading and listening to words upon words upon words that mean absolutely nothing. And I am beyond tired of entire groups of mostly innocent people being demonized and marginalized.

I’m no fan of politicians. For quite a while now I have been voting on what seems to be the lesser of the evils. I think we are all pretty aware that the majority of politicians are not what we would call honest. I have tried to keep faith in our system and the checks and balances that may at least partially work. Yes, the system is bent, if not broken and some changes are desperately needed.

I am still terrified of any form of government under the leadership of Donald Trump. I have watched him lie, bully, massage statistics and constantly use double speak, never directly answering a single question that is posed to him and never taking responsibility for anything. No matter how successful people believe him to be, running a business is not the same as running a country. In business you are selling a product or service. Selling something requires marketing. You first convince people that they have a problem. Then you convince them that what you are selling will solve that problem. Donald Trump presented the problem that our country was in shambles and our government a mess. Next he announced that he could fix all of it right away if he were elected president. Many people believed him and believed that someone good at running a business would be good at running a country but I strongly disagree. Business owners are concerned with the bottom line. They want to make the largest profit possible. While they need to please the customer enough to make them want to buy, and folks surely did want to buy what he was selling, in business the best interest of the customer is not the bottom line. The bottom line is profit. There are plenty of businesses out there who want to make you believe their product is exactly what you need, and Trump did just that. The problem is, just like with all shady businesses, the product doesn’t work. It’s a lie.

I consistently heard and saw President Obama demonized and hated among many people I know over the past few years. I don’t understand why. He is a politician just like all of them. I don’t agree with all his policies as I have not agreed with all the policies of any of our presidents. He was cast in the worst light possible, called the anti-Christ, a terrorist, accused of wanting to destroy our country. But some of his policies have helped people. The unemployment rate went down. I know people who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act. It was never perfect. It needs work. If our current government was working together to make it better for our citizens, wow, I’d be so behind them. But what we’re looking at is a bunch of powerful people on both sides of the aisle acting like children. Some of this is not new. Politics has been ugly for a long time. But this finger pointing, blaming, boasting, belittling, name-calling and especially the tweeting is completely over the top.

I spent three months away from this country. I heard people from all parts of the world joking and laughing about our upcoming elections. The first words people said to me upon meeting usually had something to do with Donald Trump. I went into stores and although it was in Arabic, I could still understand the word “Trump” amid the radio discourse. I couldn’t get away from it. In my opinion, the bottom line for this man is profit and power for himself. I do not believe for a second that he cares about what happens to the American people, or any other people for that matter.

After a four-month break, I am back on Facebook. I missed my friends. I won’t be using my Facebook page to call our president names or claim his followers are “sheeple” because I don’t see the good in that. It’s important to speak up against injustice or any form of oppression. I don’t intend to be silent. For me, resistance to injustice reveals itself through relationships. I want to meet people and learn about them. I want to know what their hopes and dreams are. I want to appreciate and love them. And I want to stand with them. I want to speak more with my actions than with my words. I will use my words, however, when I find it necessary and I think my blog is the best place for that. Kind and gentle as possible.